A child discloses that her grandfather has been sexually abusing her, and the mother’s response is shock that his abuse didn’t stop with her when she was a child. This scene is not uncommon for Molly VanDuser, the president and clinical director of Peace of Mind, an outpatient counseling and trauma treatment center in North Carolina. As she explains, adult survivors of child sexual abuse often assume that the offender has changed or is too old to engage in such actions again. So, the abuse persists.
Concetta Holmes, the clinical director of the Child Protection Center in Sarasota, Florida, has treated clients with similar intergenerational abuse stories. “In that unresolved trauma … what has happened is now a culture of silence around sexual violence that is ingrained in the family,” she says. “That [affects] things like your feelings of safety, security [and] trustworthiness, and it reinforces that you should stay with people who hurt you.”
Kimberly Frazier, an associate professor in the Department of Clinical Rehabilitation and Counseling at Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center, acknowledges that people often don’t want to think or talk about child sexual abuse, but that doesn’t stop it from happening. The nonprofit Darkness to Light reported in 2013 that approximately 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before they turn 18.
Because of the culture of silence that surrounds child sexual abuse, it is safe to assume that the true number is even higher. Cases of child sexual abuse often continue for years because the abuse is built on a foundation of secrets and fear, Frazier points out. Survivors frequently fear what will happen to them (or to others) if they tell, or the shame they feel about the abuse deters them from disclosing.
Societal norms can also diminish a survivor’s likelihood of disclosing. For example, society has for decades implicitly sanctioned sexual interactions between boys who are minors and adult woman, but it is still abuse, says Anna Viviani, an associate professor of counseling and director of the clinical mental health counseling and counselor education programs at Indiana State University. Holmes adds that gender stereotypes such as this can cause boys to feel as though they shouldn’t be or weren’t affected by sexual abuse, which is not the case.
“I think the biggest fallacy [counselors have] is that [child sexual abuse] is going to impact people from a particular demographic more than another,” Viviani says. “Childhood sexual abuse cuts across every demographic. I think the sooner we can accept that, the sooner we’re going to be better at identifying clients when they have this issue in their history.”
Putting on a detective hat
Identifying signs of child sexual abuse is neither easy nor straightforward. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the signs are not clear-cut, says VanDuser, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and an American Counseling Association member. Regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting can indicate abuse, but they might also be the result of other changes such as a recent move, a new baby in the family or a military parent deploying, she explains.
VanDuser also warns that child sexual abuse is insidious because a lot goes on before the offender actually touches the child. “Childhood sexual abuse sometimes leaves no physical wounds to identify,” she says. Some examples of noncontact abuse include peeping in the window at the child, making a child watch pornography or encouraging a child to sit on one’s lap and play the “tickle game.” Such activities are part of the grooming process — the way that offenders build trust and gain access to the child.
In addition to physical signs such as bladder and vaginal infections, changes in eating habits, and stomachaches, survivors of child sexual abuse also demonstrate behavioral and emotional changes. One major warning sign is if the child displays a more advanced knowledge of sex than one would expect at the child’s developmental stage, VanDuser says.
Other possible behavioral signs include not wanting to be alone with a certain person (e.g., stepfather, babysitter), becoming clingy with a nonoffending caregiver, not wanting to remove clothing to change or bathe, being afraid of being alone at night, having nightmares or having difficulty concentrating. In general, counselors should look for behaviors that are out of character for that particular child, VanDuser advises.
Viviani, a licensed clinical professional counselor and an ACA member, also finds that people who have experienced child sexual abuse have higher rates of depression, anxiety, panic disorders and posttraumatic stress disorders.
Because the signs of child sexual abuse are rarely clear-cut, counselors must be good investigators, Viviani argues. In her experience, adult survivors present with an array of symptoms, including health concerns, relationship problems and gaps in memory, so counselors have to look for patterns to discover the underlying issue.
If counselors notice any of these signs, VanDuser recommends asking the client, “When did this problem (e.g., bed-wetting, cutting, nightmares, acting out in school) begin?” Counselors can then follow up and ask, “What else was going on at that time?” The answers to these questions often reveal the underlying issue, she notes. For example, if the client responds that his or her depression or vigilance to the environment began around age 12, VanDuser says she will dig deeper into the client’s family relationships.
Frazier, an LPC and a member of ACA, suggests that counselors can also look for patterns in a child’s drawing — for example, what colors they use, how intensely they draw with certain colors, or if they scratch out certain people or choose not to include someone — or in the choices children make with activities such as feeling faces cards (cards that depict different emotional facial expressions). When Frazier asked one of her clients who had come to counseling because of suspected sexual abuse to select from the feeling face cards, she noticed the client consistently picked cards with people wearing glasses. Frazier later discovered that the child’s abuser wore glasses.
For Frazier, becoming a detective also involves going outside of the office to observe the child in different spaces, such as in school, in day care or at the park. Frazier includes the possibility of outside observations in her consent form, so the child’s parent or guardian agrees to it beforehand. She advises that counselors should take note of whether the child’s behavior is consistent across all of these spaces or whether there are changes from home to school, for example. In addition, she suggests asking the parents or guardians follow-up questions about how the child’s behavior has changed (e.g., Has the child lost the joy of playing his or her favorite sport? Is the child withdrawn? Is the child fighting?).
Speaking a child’s language
Young children may not have the words or cognitive development to tell counselors about the abuse they have been subjected to. Instead, these children may engage in traumatic play, such as having monsters in the sand tray eat each other or being in a frenzied state and drawing aggressive pictures, VanDuser says.
“One of the most important things for clinicians to remember when they’re working with kids and abuse is that it’s really critical to be working within the languages that children speak,” says Holmes, a licensed clinical social worker and a nationally credentialed advocate through the National Organization for Victim Assistance. “Children speak through a variety of different languages that aren’t just verbal. They speak through play. They speak through art, through writing [and] through movement, so it becomes really important that clinicians get creative in using evidence-based practices and different modalities to talk with children through their language. … Talking in a child’s language allows them to feel like the topic at hand is less overwhelming and less scary.”
For example, children can use Legos to build a wall of their emotions, Holmes says, with counselors instructing clients to pick colors to represent different emotions. If orange represents sadness and red represents frustration and 90 percent of the child’s wall contains orange and red Legos, then the counselor gets a better visualization of what emotions are inside the child, she says.
Next, counselors could ask clients what it would take to remove a red brick of frustration or what their ideal wall would look like, such as one that contains more bricks representing happiness or peace. Counselors can also ask these clients to rebuild their Lego walls throughout therapy to see how their emotions are changing, Holmes says. This method is easier than asking children if their anger has decreased and by how much, she adds.
Frazier, past president of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, a division of ACA, also finds that working with children keeps counselors on their toes. Children are honest and will admit if they do not like an intervention, so counselors have to be ready to shift strategies quickly, she says. For this reason, counselors need to have a wide range of creative approaches in their counseling bag. She recommends drawing supplies, play school or kitchen sets, play dough and sand trays.
With sand trays, Frazier likes to provide dinosaurs and other nonhuman figurines for children to play with because it helps them not to feel constrained or limited. This allows them to freely let a dinosaur or car represent a particular person or idea, she explains.
Frazier also recommends the “Popsicle family” intervention, in which children decorate Popsicle sticks to represent their family members and support systems. This exercise provides insight into family dynamics (who is included in the family and who isn’t) and allows children to describe and interact with these “people” like they would with Barbie dolls, she says.
Frazier advises counselors to keep culturally and developmentally appropriate materials on hand. For example, they should have big crayons for young children with limited fine motor skills, and they should have various shades of crayons, markers, pencils and construction paper so children can easily create what they want.
Being multiculturally competent goes beyond ethnicity, Frazier points out. Counselors should understand the culture the child grew up in and the culture of the child’s current locality because what is considered “normal” in one city or area might differ from another, she says. For example, in New Orleans, where she lives, people regularly have “adopted” family members. So, if a child from New Orleans were creating his or her Popsicle family, it wouldn’t be strange to see the child include several people outside of his or her immediate family and refer to them as “cousin” or “aunt,” even if they aren’t blood relatives.
Thus, Frazier stresses the importance of counselors immersing themselves in the worldview of their child clients. “You can’t be a person who works with kids and not know all the shows and the stuff that’s happening with that particular age group, the music, the things that are on trend and the things they’re talking about,” Frazier says. “Otherwise, you’ll always be behind trying to ask them, ‘What does that mean?’”
With adolescents, Holmes finds narrative therapy to be particularly effective, and she often incorporates art and interview techniques into the process. For example, the counselor could ask the client to draw a picture of an emotion that he or she feels, such as anger. Next, the client would give this emotion a name and create a short biography about it. For example, how was anger born? How did it grow up to be who it is? What fuels it? Why does it hang around?
Next, Holmes says, the counselor and client could discuss the questions the client would ask this emotion if it had its own voice. Then, the client could interview the initial picture of the emotion and use his or her own voice to answer the questions as the emotion would. The answers provide insight into the emotional distress the client is feeling, Holmes explains.
Frazier will do ad-lib word games with older children, who are often more verbal. While clients fill in the blanks to create their own stories, she looks for themes (e.g., gloomy story) or the child’s response to the word game (e.g., eager, withdrawn).
Unfortunately, the effects of child sexual abuse don’t end with childhood or even with counseling. “Children revisit their trauma at almost every age and stage of development, which is every two to three years,” Holmes notes. “That might not mean they need counseling each and every time, but they find new meaning in it or they find they have new questions … or new emotions about it.”
Viviani, VanDuser and Frazier agree that recovery is a lifelong process. As survivors age, they will have sexual encounters, get married, become pregnant or have their child reach the age they were when the abuse occurred. These events can all become trigger points for a flood of new physical and emotional symptoms related to the child sexual abuse, Viviani says.
Often, an issue separate from the abuse causes adult survivors to seek counseling. In fact, VanDuser says she rarely gets an adult who discloses child sexual abuse as the presenting issue. Instead, she finds adult clients are more likely to come in because their own child is having behavioral problems or because they’re feeling depressed or anxious, they’re having nightmares or they’re married and have no interest in sex.
Adults survivors often experience long-term physical ailments. According to Viviani, who presented on this topic at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta, some of the ailments include diabetes, fibromyalgia and chronic pain syndromes, pelvic pain, sexual difficulties, headaches, substance use disorders, eating disorders, cardiovascular problems, hypertension and gastrointestinal problems.
Another long-term issue for survivors is difficulty forming healthy relationships. Because child sexual abuse alters boundaries, survivors may not realize when something is odd or abusive in a relationship, VanDuser says. For example, if an adult survivor is in a relationship with someone who is overly jealous and possessive, he or she may mistakenly translate that jealously into a sign of love.
Child sexual abuse can also affect decision-making as an adult around careers, housing, personal activities and sexual intimacy, Viviani notes. For example, one of her clients wanted to attend a Bible study group but didn’t feel safe being in a smaller group where a man might pay attention to her. In addition, Viviani finds that adult survivors sometimes choose careers they are not interested in just because those careers provide a safe environment with no triggers.
To help adult clients make sense of the abuse they suffered as children and move forward, Viviani often uses meaning-making activities and mindfulness techniques. She suggests that counselors help these clients find a way to do something purposeful with their history of abuse, whether that involves sharing their story with a testimony at church, volunteering for a mental health association or participating in a walk/run to raise awareness of suicide prevention.
Survivors of child sexual abuse often blame themselves for the abuse or the aftermath once the abuse is revealed, especially if it results in the offender leaving the family, the family losing its home or the family’s income dropping, VanDuser says. One of her clients even confessed to thinking that she somehow triggered her child sexual abuse from her stepfather.
“Sometimes the worst part is the dread [when the child knows the sexual abuse is] coming eventually. So, sometimes a teenager will actually initiate it to get it over with because the only time they feel relief is after it’s done,” VanDuser explains. “Then they know for a while that they won’t be bothered again.”
Counselors often need to shine a light on survivors’ cognitive distortions to help them work through their guilt and shame, VanDuser says. She tries to help clients understand that the sexual abuse was not their fault by changing their perspective. For example, she will take a client to a park where there are children close to the age the survivor was when the abuse happened. She’ll point to one of the children playing and ask, “What could the child really do?” This simple question often helps clients realize that they couldn’t have done anything to prevent the abuse, VanDuser says.
Viviani takes a similar approach by talking with clients in the third person about their expectations of what a child would developmentally be able to do in a similar situation. She asks clients if they would blame another child (their grandchild or niece, for example) for being sexually abused. Then she asks why they blame themselves for what happened to them because they were also just children at the time.
“As you frame it that way, they begin to have a little bit more compassion for themselves, and self-compassion is something that’s so important for survivors to develop,” Viviani says. In her experience, survivors are hard on themselves, often exercising magical thinking about what they should or should not have been able to do as a child. “As we help them develop self-compassion and self-awareness, we see the guilt begin to dissipate,” she adds.
Regaining a sense of safety
Safety — in emotions, relationships and touches — is a critical component of treatment for a child who has been sexually abused, Holmes stresses.
Counselors should teach clients about safe and unsafe touches, personal boundaries and age-appropriate sexual behavior rules, adds Amanda Jans, a registered mental health counseling intern and mental health therapist for the Child Protection Center in Sarasota. Counselors can also help clients “understand that they are in charge of their bodies, so even if a touch is safe, it doesn’t mean they have to accept it,” she says.
Hula hoops provide a creative way to discuss personal space boundaries with clients, Holmes notes. Counselors can use hula hoops of different sizes to illustrate safe and unsafe boundaries with a parent, sibling, friend or stranger, she explains.
VanDuser helps clients engage in safety planning by having them draw their hand on a piece of paper. For each finger, they figure out a corresponding person they can tell if something happens to them in the future.
Counselors can also take steps to ensure that their offices are safe settings. Jans, an ACA member who presented on the treatment of child sexual abuse at the ACA 2018 Conference, uses noise machines to ensure privacy and aromatherapy machines to make the environment more comfortable. She also has a collection of kid-friendly materials, so if a child starts to feel dysregulated during a session, he or she can take a break and play basketball or color.
Likewise, if clients are hesitant to discuss the topic, Jans allows them to take a step back. For instance, she has clients read someone else’s experience (either real or fictional) rather than having them write their own story, or she has clients role-play with someone else serving as the main character, not themselves. This distance helps clients move to a place where they eventually can discuss their own stories, she says.
Another technique Jans uses to ease clients into writing and processing their own stories is a word web. Together, Jans and a client will brainstorm words related to the client’s experience and put the words on a web (a set of circles drawn on a paper in a weblike pattern). Jans finds this exercise helps clients get comfortable talking about the subject and, eventually, these words become part of their narrative.
VanDuser also suggests getting out of the office. Sometimes she takes child and adolescent clients to a store to get a candy bar. On the way, she will ask them what they are feeling or noticing. If clients say that someone walking by makes them feel strange, VanDuser asks how they would address this feeling or what they would do if someone approached them. Then they will talk through strategies that would make the client feel safe in this situation.
Taking back control
Survivors of child sexual abuse often feel they can’t control what happens around them or to them, Frazier says. So, counselors can get creative using interventions that return control to these survivors and make them feel safe.
Viviani helps clients regain some sense of control in their lives by teaching grounding and coping skills. “Coping skills are so important to helping them begin to trust in themselves again so that they have the skills to really uncover and deal with the abuse,” she explains.
In sessions, counselors can help clients recognize what their bodies feel when they are triggered. Then they can help clients learn to deescalate through grounding skills such as noticing and naming things in their current surroundings or reminding themselves of where they are and the current date, Viviani says. Rather than reliving the incident — being back in their bedroom at age 5, for example — clients learn to ground themselves in the here and now: “This is Jan. 10, 2019, and I’m sitting in my office.”
VanDuser highly recommends trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy (TF-CBT) for work with survivors of child sexual abuse. TF-CBT is a short-term treatment, typically 12-16 sessions, that incorporates psychoeducation on traumatic stress for both the child and nonoffending parent or caregiver, skills for identifying and regulating emotions, cognitive behavior therapy and a trauma narrative technique.
For a creative approach, VanDuser suggests letting children use crayons and a lunch bag to create a “garbage bag.” She first writes down all the bad feelings (e.g., fear, anger, shame) the client has about the abuse. As the child finishes working on one of the bad feelings, he or she puts the feeling in the garbage bag. When all the feelings are in the bag, VanDuser lets the client dispose of it however he or she wishes — by burning it, burying it, throwing it in the actual garbage or some other method.
Jans and Holmes suggest empowering clients by giving them some control in session. For example, if clients are feeling sad, the counselor can remind them of the coping strategies they have been working on (perhaps progressive muscle relaxation and grounding techniques) and ask which one they want to use to address this feeling. The counselor could also list the goals of therapy for that day and ask clients which one they want to work on first, Holmes says.
Holmes acknowledges that clients may never make sense of the abuse they suffered, but counselors can help them make sense of the abuse’s impact and aftermath. For Holmes, this meaning making involves clients being empowered to reclaim their lives after abuse rather than being held hostage by it, realizing that trauma doesn’t have to define them and learning to be compassionate with themselves.
The hero who told
Holmes encourages counselors not to shy away from discussing child sexual abuse. “If clinicians hesitate, clients will hesitate. If the clinician avoids it, the client will avoid it,” Holmes says. “It’s the clinician’s responsibility to take the lead on this topic. Sexual abuse is so widespread in our society that we do our clients a disservice when we don’t incorporate sexual abuse histories into our [client] assessments.”
Typically, however, counselors are not the first person a child will tell about the abuse. Often, children first disclose the abuse to a teacher or other school personnel, and their reaction is crucial in ensuring that the child gets help, Viviani says.
Thus, she advises counselors to partner with schools and child advocacy organizations to educate them on what they should do if a child discloses sexual abuse. “They need to know what to do,” Viviani emphasizes. “They need to know what to say to support that child because we may not get another chance, at least until they hit college age when they’re not under that roof anymore, or we may never get that chance again.”
Counselors must also empower survivors of child sexual abuse. “They shouldn’t be waiting for the therapist … or their best friend to ride in and save them. We want them to be the hero of their own story,” Holmes says. “And how we do that is through finding ways they can start to recognize and make safe and healthy decisions about different pieces of their life, and we want to model that even within the therapy environment.”
The end result of TF-CBT is the child writing his or her own narrative of the sexual abuse. VanDuser emphasizes that no matter how the child’s sexual abuse story begins, it always has the same ending: the hero — the child — who told.
Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.
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